KALMTHOUT, Belgium (VN) —After American Katie Compton rode solo to her third World Cup victory of the season, Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) sprinted to his first, slipping around a tiring Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) at the line to win the Kalmthout stop of the UCI World Cup on Sunday.
The two had been off the front on the slick, mushy course with Kevin Pauwels (Telenet), Francis Mourey (FdJ), Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) and Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant) going into the final lap.
Meeusen, Nys, Pauwels and Mourey had shed Albert and Aernouts as they shot onto the pavement for the sprint. A tiring Nys led it out and Meeusen just slipped past on his right at the line. Pauwels finished third with Mourey fourth and World Cup leader Albert fifth.
It was the first World Cup win for Meeusen, who was elated.
“This is really cool,” he told Belgian TV. “It’s my third victory of the year, and I’m really, really happy. I think he (Nys) was tired the last lap. I was perfect on the wheel for the sprint and had the good gear.”
A cold, snowy contest
For the second time in two years, December brought unusual cold and snow to much of Western Europe, burying the fifth round of the World Cup in snow.
Featuring a technical, wooded, but relatively flat course, the race was the second of a pair kicking off the busy Christmas racing season in Belgium.
Though world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) skipped the race while continuing to nurse an injured knee, racers from around the world, including seven Americans — among them Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), Ryan Trebon (Kona) and Brian Matter (Geargrinder) — added some international flavor to a series that has been dominated by a handful of riders from Belgium and the Czech Republic for weeks.
A six-man contest
Mourey took the early lead on the slushy, rutted course, which served up only one “good” line in most spots, as did Antwerp on Saturday. Highlights included a few staircase runs, a rideable flyover, some fast, slippery descents and a wicked bog section.
World Cup leader Albert joined Mourey out front as Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) stacked it on a greasy downhill, blocking Dieter Vanthourenhout (BKCP-Powerplus) and sending Philipp Walsleben somersaulting straight over the bars.
With six laps to go the two had a workable gap over a four-man chase containing Pauwels, Meeusen, Nys and Aernouts.
As Albert pitted Mourey took the lead and first the Telenets, then Nys and Aernouts joined up, and it was a six-man race up front.
Next time through the start-finish Aernouts tried a dig that went nowhere, and as the six left the pavement Nys came to the front and stretched the group out. Albert and Mourey both nearly lost contact, but fought back on.
Nys gives it the gas
Nys lifted the pace once again coming out of the bog, and with four laps remaining he had Pauwels and Aernouts with him, and a bit of an advantage over Albert, Mourey and Meeusen.
As Pauwels moved into the lead that gap slammed shut. Then the two Telenets, with Aernouts, took a slight lead over Nys, who hit the pits for a fresh bike. Pauwels was giving it the gas and there were two three-man groups in contention for the victory.
With three to go it was snowing again and the two groups were slowly coming back together. As the leaders hit a U-turn Meeusen and Aernouts briefly got tangled up — Aernouts was running while Meeusen was riding — and Pauwels slipped away alone.
Nys shouldered past Meeusen and into second, some four seconds behind Pauwels. Mourey began chasing, followed by Meeusen, Aernouts and Albert.
First two, then four
With two laps to race Nys caught Pauwels on the pavement, and the two had five seconds over Mourey and Meeusen, with Albert and Aernouts in tandem a bit further back.
Mourey battled back, dragging Meeusen with him, and there were four men up front with Nys on point. Behind, Albert shed a tiring Aernouts and launched a solo pursuit of the leaders.
Bell lap — Nys led Pauwels, Mourey and Meeusen, with Albert dangling just six seconds behind. The Belgian champ did everything possible to shed his passengers, but they stuck to him, with Mourey losing ground and fighting back each time.
Going onto the pavement a weary Nys had one last look over his shoulder, saw that he still had plenty of company, and led out the sprint from the front. Meeusen danced around him for the win, but Nys held onto second with Pauwels rounding out the podium and Mourey last of the best in fourth.
“It’s definitely the biggest win of my career,” said a beaming Meeusen, whose palmarès include a win in similarly snowy conditions last year in Kalmthout as a Under-23 rider. “It’s super to win here just 10 kilometers from my front door. It’s actually my third victory here, but it’s definitely the nicest.”
The former U23 Belgian champion said that he benefited from an excellent start that saw him shoot from the third row to the top 10 in the first meters of the race, but his superior bike handling in poor conditions made an even bigger difference.
“My technique is pretty good,” he told VeloNews. “I’m also a mountain biker in the summer, so when it’s icy and snowy, that’s for me. This is a track that I’ve trained on since I was young, so I know it really well. That’s an advantage for me, and when it’s icy, that’s even more for me. But today I also had a good tactical race, and that’s why I could win today.”
Meeusen suggested that both Nys and Pauwels might have been stronger today, despite the fact that the Belgian champion told VeloNews that he did not have his best legs today.
“I didn’t feel the power in my legs to be able to have a really good sprint,” said Nys. “Tactically I did what I needed to, staying in the front on the last laps, but I did not have a good feeling in this race. I changed my tires a lot, and I never felt I had the good tires on. I had good grip, but the speed just wasn’t good. That was a problem too.”
Nys said he was able to gain ground despite having an off day because of his ability to find places where a move could make a difference on the narrow, technical course.
“I try to find some places where it’s possible [to move up],” he explained. “When you have good vision of the track and when you see where it’s possible, then you can do it. A little acceleration is enough to stay in the front. That’s experience and that’s technical skills and that’s what you need in a race like this.”
Among a large North American contingent, Jonathan Page had the best day, finishing 28th, about two-and-a-half minutes back from the leaders. Page, who was still feeling the effects of a hard crash at Scheldecross in Antwerp Saturday (one that may have cost him the best finish of the season so far), said most of the damage was done in the first minutes of the race.
“This race has a lot of singletrack, and there’s very little room to move forward,” he told reporters at the finish line. “So if you have luck and you have a good start, you’re going to stay there or maybe more forward. But it’s hard to keep making up space. You try to have a little bit of energy for the road, but you can only move up one or two places there.”
Page added that he was still optimistic about his prospects for the busy weeks of racing coming up, despite the fall.
“Yesterday was a great race for me,” he said, “but unfortunately I just fell down at the wrong time. I’m feeling good about my form, though. My ankle is definitely twisted and swollen, but I got it taped up, and I’ll be fine. It didn’t really have any bearing on my race today. I just don’t want to run right now.”
Ryan Trebon, who finished a minute behind Page in 32nd place, said he was happy just to have a consistent, safe race.
“I didn’t crash, I didn’t break anything. There’s always something positive,” he told VeloNews. “My goal today was just to stay out there and ride a good steady race, and it went all right. The course is so narrow, it’s really fast, and it’s kind of chicanes the whole way and single track. So when there’s snow, there’s only one good line you can ride. If you’re not in the first 20 on the first lap, your race is pretty much over.”
Canadian Mike Garrigan finished 42nd, ahead of countrymen Craig Richey and Shaun Adamson, who finished in 62nd and 65th respectively. American Sean Babcock claimed 53rd place, with Brian Matter 58th, one spot ahead of Mark Lalonde. Ryan Knapp finished 63rd.
Albert, who started well but couldn’t match the late surge by Nys, Meeusen, Pauwels, and Mourey, nonetheless held on to the World Cup leader’s jersey with his fifth-place finish, 49 points ahead of Pauwels, who remains in second place. Nys’ second was enough to boost him into third place, two points behind Pauwels and ahead of both Mourey and the absent Stybar.
The World Cup continues next Sunday on the grounds of the Formula 1 track in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton started writing about cyclocross when he moved from New Hampshire to Belgium in 2008. He started covering European cyclocross for VeloNews in October 2010. Dan has a Ph.D. in physics and spends most of his time working as mission scientist for a spaceborne solar telescope at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. He somehow finds time to race as an amateur ‘crosser in Belgium during the fall and winter. Dan and his wife, Mindi, live in Brussels.